Friday, June 22, 2018

Die Walkure (an opera review post)

"Ride of the Valkyries" is one of the most famous pieces of music in the world. It's entirely memorable, and it's been used in everything from Apocalypse Now to Looney Tunes, so it would be surprising if you've never heard it. I have to say, the arrival of the Valkyries in this production was amazing. They came in by parachute! Okay, not exactly literally, but they "fell from the sky." On parachutes. Amazing.

The Valkyrie is a jump ahead from The Rhinegold. Some unspecified amount of time jump. Long enough ahead that Wotan has a whole slew of kids, all grown up and immortal. Well, most of them are immortal. Two of them, twins, are the offspring of some mortal woman Wotan decided to have a fling with and are not, therefore, immortal. And they don't seem to have gained any specific benefits by having a god as a father, either. Fricka, Wotan's wife, isn't happy about any of Wotan's offspring, since none of them are hers, but she's especially not happy about Siegmund, one of the twins. He's Wotan's favorite and, evidently, the only male offspring Wotan has. At least, he's the only male mentioned.

Still, everything might have been fine except... well... Look, Siegmund and Sieglinde were separated as young children and hadn't seen each other in, like, two decades when they came across each other. It's not exactly their fault that it was love at first sight. Except that, after talking about their fathers, they come to realize it's the same father and realize they're twins and, instead of having an "ewww! gross!" response, they're like, "We're twins! Even better!" As my wife put it: twincest.

And thus ends Act One.

Which left us with a crawly feeling and me wondering if we were somehow watching Flowers in the Attic by mistake. I mean, was this a thing Wagner felt was okay?

But, no... Well, at least, maybe not. Act II does pick up with Fricka questioning the morality of twincest. Of course, she's using it as a ploy because she hates Siegmund, and Wotan defends the relationship because "they're in love." It's difficult to know where Wagner actually stood on the issue from the content of the opera (and I'm not going to go researching Wagner's life, at the moment; I don't care about it that much). At any rate, it's an interesting plot point for the opera, especially since everything that happens after could have been accomplished if the twins had, well, not been twins.

The real takeaway from Die Walkure is that Wotan is a horrible father. He abandoned Siegmund and Sieglinde before they were old enough to know who he was, and he doesn't have any care at all for Sieglinde. Siegmund might be his favorite, but it's only from a distance. His other children, the Valkyries, are just tools in his quest to fill Valhalla with heroes with which to defend it. Brunnhilde is the only one of his children with whom he has any kind of relationship, and he uses her more harshly than any of the rest, in the end stripping her of her immortality -- among other things -- and that was a punishment for her doing what it was that Wotan wanted her to do.

Yeah... Harsh.

Greer Grimsley is one of the best opera performers I've seen at this point. Wotan is an asshole. Wait. Wotan is an Asshole. And, yet, Grimsley manages to play the character in such a way so that he's also sympathetic. He's doing horrible things to people and manipulating... everything... and you feel bad for the guy. It's like in Infinity War when Thanos throws Gamora down in the pit as a sacrifice except Grimsley makes you feel bad for Wotan as he's cursing Brunnhilde. I never felt bad for Thanos. Huh. There's a lot in the whole Infinity War plot that very much resembles the Ring Cycle. What did I tell you about the influence on pop culture this piece has had?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Das Rheingold (an opera review post)

Let's start out be stealing a quote from a completely unrelated story:
"...this, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl."
Or, in this case, three girls.
At least, that's where it starts.

Das Rheingold is interesting in that it was the last part of the story Wagner conceived. Actually, he worked his way backwards, having first thought of the arc's ultimate climax, then filling in the required backstory as he wrote. Das Rheingold is considered a prologue, so it's not entirely necessary to the rest of the arc, but it does provide some pretty interesting background.

The opera opens with the three Rhine maidens cavorting in a river, which, I suppose, is what Rhine maidens do. Their actual task is to guard the Rhine gold, but that seems to be a rather boring and thankless task, so they spend their time playing games in the water. This is what Alberich finds them doing when he stumbles upon them.

This is a recipe for conflict from the very beginning. See, Alberich is a dwarf from Nibelung, which is to say that Alberich is not handsome. That doesn't stop him from being smitten by the scantily clad water sprites playing in the river, and he decides he's going to catch one and make her his own. To say this is in direct conflict with the desires of the maidens is an understatement. Not only do they not wish to "be caught" by him but, upon noticing him and how ugly he is, they decide to have some "fun" with him, which is to say that they decide to torment him with their beauty.

There's a good analogy here for today's incel movement. Putting aside the fact that the maidens are deliberating torturing him through their flirtatious ways, Alberich has already decided that he deserves to have them. Or at least one of them. How they feel about it doesn't matter to him; he feels that he has been denied something his by right because none of the three want him.

But that would have been the end of it except for the Rhine gold.

The Rhine gold is not like normal gold. It has magical properties that can allow the possessor of the gold to forge a magic ring that will give him absolute power. The only catch is that, to forge the ring, the smith must curse love and forsake it forever. After his treatment at the hands of the maidens -- or his lack of treatment at their hands, if you know what I mean -- Alberich decides that's not such a bad deal, curses love, and steals the gold. Besides, once he's become king of the world, he can compel them to have sex with him, no love required.

This, also, sounds like the men of the incel movement. And here's where I point out that Alberich is the villain in this story. Or, at least, a villain. These guys are not heroes, no matter how wronged they feel they've been.

All of that is just the beginning, maybe the first 25 minutes or so, which is way more synopsis than I usually like to give, but I wanted to make a point. Needless to say, much of the rest of the action revolves around the Ring that Alberich forges.

This particular production was great, even better than the one I mentioned that we watched on dvd. The staging was better. The actors were better. The sets were better. In particular, the character of Loge (Loki) was better. I'm sure, at least in part, this was due to the actor, Stefan Margita, who is wonderful, but it's also choices of presentation of the character by the director, Francesca Zambello. Loge is definitely my favorite character in Das Rheingold. Greer Grimsley, as Wotan (Odin), is also a step up from the other production and is pretty amazing.

But, then, the San Francisco Opera can generally be counted on for delivering great performances.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Kill the Wabbit! or Anticipating The Ring


Most people don't give opera a second thought. Or a first thought, for that matter. I mean, it's kind of a dead form of entertainment, right? That's certainly what I used to think about it. And you could make a case for that, I suppose, since it's a relatively limited form of entertainment. Not that it has to be that way, but it requires a lot of training and, well, there are all sorts of things I could get into about this, but none of it's what this post is about, so we can have that discussion some other time.

However, despite the fact that opera has become rather exclusive, it has influenced popular culture in ways people are unaware of and don't understand. Just the influence in music is unmistakable, and I don't even know that much about music or music history, but you can find pieces of opera music in, well, everything. Okay, maybe not everything, but it's fairly pervasive. But it's not just music, though I don't have the background (and am not going to do the research right now) to tell you how far the reach of opera is.

I do know enough, though, to be able to say that it's possible that Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle is the foundation of... well, a tremendous amount of our current pop culture. Or at least related to it.

Which brings me to the point: The San Francisco opera is doing the Ring Cycle! [Actually, by the time this posts, I will be in the middle of watching this, but, as I write this, I'm still a day away from Das Rheingold, the prologue to the cycle.] I'm very excited to see this. All 16 hours of it. Yeah, you heard me: 16 hours! Don't worry; it's divided into four operas presented on four, almost consecutive evenings (though there are opera houses who present the cycle in one marathon performance!).

In preparation for this (this is such a big deal, you have to buy tickets a year in advance!), my wife got me a copy of Das Rheingold for Christmas. It's a dvd of a revolutionary production of the cycle. We only just last week sat down and finally watched it, and the threads of influence are almost immediately apparent. I'll tell you the big three, which should be self-explanatory enough for you to get what I mean about it being foundational: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel Comics. Not to mention Bugs Bunny. It was well worth the watch even if I hadn't like it.

But I did like it! It was a good and interesting story and it's too bad that people are so unfamiliar with it these days.

One thing of note: The opera is done recitative. I'm pretty sure there are no arias in the entire thing. If you've followed my opera reviews at all, you'll know that I pretty typically do not like operas done entirely recitative. Generally speaking, this is due to the music more than the actual style. For some reason, post-Wagner operas done recitative tend to have very droning music with very little melody that -- for me, anyway -- makes it difficult to stay focused. It's like a very aggressive way to put people to sleep. But that wasn't the case with Das Rheingold. Despite the recitative quality, the music was very melodic, soaring in places, even. I wonder what changed with people after Wagner. Or maybe it's just a matter of skill? I don't know.

I do know, though, that I'm pretty sure that opera should not be a thing of the past.